Desert Rose

Do you ever listen to a song and remember exactly what life was like the first time you heard it? The joy and melancholy is a rush back to that exact moment. You may even recall how the day felt against your skin, the dappled sunlight that playfully decorated your wall, moving in time with beats of the song. You can remember the emotion, how you felt. How the music beautifully captured and expressed your feelings. And you feel it again in the present. You all know what I’m talking about.

Music has always been present in my life, from the days when my parents would place me in my cot to nap in front of the 80’s stereo system, the piano I’d take out the day’s anger on as a teenager, to the sounds of heartbreak that bandaged the grief within my chest. It was my stress reliever, shoulder to cry on, moments of celebration and motivator to excel.

It’s only now, when I reflect back at the musical choices I made that I realise that music became part of my identity. A tool to help find myself, to define myself. Much like the blurred boundaries of a third culture identity, I also found a musical score that pinpointed the different moments in my life, a musical history of me that crossed genres. I guess this shouldn’t have been such a surprise, when you think about it, music and identity are fluid and malleable, never fixed or unchanging. It not only gave me a sense of self, but also a sense of belonging.

I had never before been exposed to the sounds of the Middle East when we moved to Dubai late 1999. We learnt about the local culture at school and watched as the Emirati men would weave their voices through the melodies of the qanun and oud, twirling their canes, while the women would swing their hair from side to side, in time with the beat of the tablah. Although the instruments were completely different, I found similarities with Javanese singers of my mother’s birth country in the way they used their voices to lace around the sounds from the gamelan orchestra.

Driving around with my family one day, the radio set to an english speaking station, a song came on that took me by surprise. It didn’t catch my attention at first but my ears took notice when I heard beautiful arabic vocals fill the car.

“We must have accidently switched channels” I thought to myself.

The vocals continued as the song layered rhythmic beats of what sounded like a tablah. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice in a familiar language. My attention shifted back to the music as I realised it was not purely a song in arabic but both arabic and english. The strings then waltzed in, dancing around the vocals of both the arabic and english singer like a belly dancer snaking through the crowd. My mind was boggled as it tried to take in and comprehend the beautiful synthesis of varying sounds that entered my ears.

I listened out for the radio presenters as the song ended. “And that was ‘Desert Rose’ by Sting featuring Cheb Mami”.

Now you wouldn’t expect a 13 year old to take interest in music from an artist who started out in the late 1970’s but I was completely absorbed. It marked the beginning of my spiral down the rabbit hole that was Sting’s ever evolving mashup of music genres and styles, but I digress.

Anytime I hear ‘Desert Rose’ now, it instantly transports me back to Dubai as a teenager in the process of distinguishing myself. I remember the revelation and connection I felt as I listened to the arabic influenced sounds that harmoniously threaded around the western lyrics and how I saw myself in the amalgamation of these different cultural worlds. As a person of mixed ethnicity who was living in a country where I did not relate at all to their heritage, ‘Desert Rose’ helped me find a sense of belonging to my new surrounding context.

The song made such an impact, that it formed a base for a high school art project as well as a first year architecture project at university in Perth. Maybe I was longing for a connection back to the Middle East when I moved to Australia. I tried to capture the union of cultures by applying traditional architectural principals of the wind catcher towers I had seen in Dubai to a design of a retreat for a famous celebrity. I wonder which celebrity I chose for that project?

I am aware that music within the Middle East varies considerably between countries. The song ‘Desert Rose’ features Cheb Mami who is an Algerian singer and draws on Algerian folk music (Rai) which does not represent traditional music from the U.A.E. I know this now, but as a teenager who was newly exposed to these sounds, gaining that sense of belonging was the most valuable lesson I took away from the music.